Senior ECPA Fellow Jeff Soule Reports on his Visit to Chile

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Mayor of Valdivia, Omar Sabat, has been in the job less than a year and has great plans for his City. I was joined by Mayor Ralph Becker along with Roberto Moris the Deputy Dean of Urbanism at the Catholic University of Chile, Santiago in a site visit to this South-Central Chilean City, known best for it largest-ever recorded earthquake of 1960.

Today, Valdivia is growing and has a variety of concerns: economic strategy, environmental protection, historic conservation, and neighborhood development and services for example. In cooperation with the Ministry of Urban Development, we held several meetings along with a community workshop to hear both the ideas and make some comments based on our experience in other cities. While we could hardly be considered knowledgeable on the specifics of Valdivia, Mayor Becker and I were able to demonstrate that many cities, including Salt Lake City, share similar issues. We discussed the importance of using the local Universities as a resource in identifying the baseline data and then assisting in the analysis of options as well as playing the role of the third party institution to host citizen events. Public participation was one of the things that interested Mayor Sabat a lot. After the earthquake, land subsidence created a series of unique wetlands throughout the city, which could be part of a connected open space system that serves the needs of the communities along the way, while also serving as critical green infrastructure to manage Valdivia’s nearly 90 inches of rainfall annually. This video shows how local activism is growing on biking and environmental issues.

Once back in Santiago, we were joined by planning expert Professor William Siembieda, Professor of City and Regional Planning at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Bill has many areas of expertise but foremost for Chile is his experience in disaster impact mitigation and recovery. After a variety of conversations, presentations and discussion with students, faculty and officials in Santiago, our main event was a day-long workshop for mayors and senior staff. The program was designed to encourage conversation on urban issues based on presentations by the mayors. Mayor Becker, Professor Siembieda, Roberto Moris and I each made brief presentations to provide context to the mayors and further stimulate the discussion. Leaders from the major central city districts of Ricoleto, Providencia, Santiago, and Independencia along with the peripheral city of la Florida each made presentations. The main issues were governance structure, lack of financial tools, how to balance local and regional planning roles and citizen participation. The issue of land use and jobs-housing imbalance was also raised, especially as so many trips are generated by the lack of proximity to both jobs and services such as schools and health care.

Everyone agreed that grassroots organizations and community leadership was driving change in the region. The visit coincided with the Catholic University’s approval for a new undergraduate planning program, which Professor Siembieda reviewed and made suggestions on his last trip. This is an amazing and excellent step in South America to recognize planning as a distinct discipline. Finally, a coalition of academics, practitioners and interested individuals are organizing a Planning Association to exchange information and promote all aspect of city planning drawing on the wide range of disciplines and interests in the topic. At the meeting, I offered the experience of the American Planning Association in serving these same interests and our willingness to support the group.

About the Author: Jeff Soule is a Senior ECPA Fellow with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas. Soule is the Director of Outreach and International Programs at the American Planning Association and is representing the ECPA Sustainable Communities in Central America and the Caribbean initiative.